Ontario scrapping birth alerts across the province starting in October

TORONTO — A system that disproportionately targets racialized and Indigenous families by alerting authorities about the pending birth of children believed to be at risk will cease in Ontario later this year, the provincial government said Tuesday as it joined other Canadian jurisdictions doing away with the controversial practice.

Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s associate minister of children and women’s issues, said the end of notifications dubbed “birth alerts” is part of the province’s push to bring greater equity to the child welfare system.

The practice, long a source of controversy in racialized communities, sees the province’s children’s aid societies ask hospitals to notify them when a child is born into a situation deemed to be high risk. Among the many recommendations from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was a call to scrap the practice across the country.

“Ending the use of birth alerts is an important step as we shift our focus to prevention, early intervention and improve outcomes for families and their children,” Dunlop said in a statement announcing the new policy. “This change is part of our government’s effort to build a child welfare system that is better co-ordinated and focused on community-based prevention services that are high quality, culturally appropriate and truly responsive to the needs of children, youth and families.”

Dunlop said birth alerts have never been legally required in Ontario, but have instead been applied inconsistently across the province’s independently run children’s aid societies.

As a result, Ontario does not track the number of birth alerts that have been issued. The ministry, however, said 442 infants were seized from their mother within seven days of birth over the past 12 months, adding about half of those seizures came about because of referrals from hospital staff.

The government announcement cited general research suggesting the practice has historically targeted racialized families, noting expecting mothers may not seek pre-natal care or parenting help for fear of becoming the target of an alert.

It said the practice must come to an end across the province by October 15, adding children’s aid societies will instead be required to work with community providers to help families develop pre- and post-natal care plans.

The policy shift drew applause from a group championing the rights of Indigenous mothers.

“Ending the practice of birth alerts in Ontario will create positive change in the lives of Indigenous women and families,” the Ontario Native Women’s Association said in a statement. “Assumptions about Indigenous women’s ability to raise their own children are unacceptable. Today, Ontario heard the clear call for change from Indigenous women.”

The association said the government should now shift its focus to providing more funding for initiatives such as parenting programs and wrap-around supports for mothers.

The government did not immediately comment on whether more money will be available in the months ahead.

The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies praised the government move and pledged its commitment to challenging the implicit biases at the heart of the child welfare system.

Chief executive officer Nicole Bonnie issued a statement acknowledging that birth alerts “cause harm,” particularly to families who are racialized, Indigenous, low-income or living with substance abuse and mental health concerns.

“We support an approach to child welfare that focuses on prevention and early intervention,” she said. “Our goal as a provincial system is to provide services that strengthen families, while ensuring the safety and well-being of the province’s children and youth.”

Tuesday’s announcement makes Ontario the latest province to eliminate birth alerts.

The Manitoba government made good on a promise to end the practice when it announced alerts would no longer be issued as of July 1. British Columbia scrapped its system last September, citing the disproportionate number of Indigenous families affected.

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